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It is tragic that it took the death of four soldiers - three Bedouin and one Christian Arab - of the Bedouin reconnaissance battalion at the Africa outpost bordering the Gaza Strip, to awaken, at least for a few days, some concern in Israel for the desperate straits of Israel's Bedouin population.

The battalion, composed mostly of Bedouin youngsters who have volunteered for regular service in the IDF in an infantry combat unit, has been posted in the Gaza area ever since the outbreak of the Al Aqsa Intifada. This is the second time that it has suffered casualties from Palestinian fire. Some months ago it received a citation from the Commander of the Southern Command for exemplary service under fire.

Lately there has been a drop in the rate of enlistment among Bedouin youngsters - a clear indication that the situation of Israel's Bedouin population is getting more desperate by the day and that the youngsters who volunteer for IDF service despite this are receiving little recognition or encouragement.

Israel's Bedouin - 130,000 in the Negev and 70,000 in the Galilee - constitute one quarter of Israel's Muslim citizens. They are the most disadvantaged sector of Israel's society. They are undergoing a traumatic transformation from their age-old traditional nomadic lifestyle to what is almost forced urbanization.

Of all segments of Israel's society, they have the lowest level of education, health care and housing. Not surprisingly they also have the highest level of unemployment. Conflicting land claims have remained unresolved for the past 54 years. The pitiful attempts by Israeli governments at urbanization in seven Bedouin townships in the Negev are an abject failure. No wonder that the slum conditions prevailing in most of them do not attract the approximately 70,000 Bedouin that still continue to live in nomadic encampments, or what are perversely referred to by the government as "unrecognized settlements."

The Bedouin who for many years refused to identify with Palestinian radicalism or Islamic fundamentalism, many of whose sons demonstrated their loyalty to Israel by volunteering for service in the IDF, are in recent years being steadily driven into the arms of the Islamic Movement.

Government neglect is beginning to be viewed by many of them as deliberate discrimination. They have become easy prey for the Islamic Movement, which preaches hostility to Israel while attempting to obstruct the volunteering of young men for IDF service.

In the face of these developments, successive Israeli governments have in effect had no policy. A number of bureaucratic organizations, frequently working at cross-purposes, are following no consistent policy, successful only at arousing anger and resentment among the Bedouin. It is high time that the government adopted a policy designed to deal with the Bedouin community's serious problems in a last-ditch attempt to integrate them into Israeli society.

It should finally be recognized that dealing adequately with the problems of the Bedouin is probably the greatest challenge facing Israeli society. Therefore a government minister, or at the very least a deputy minister in the Prime Minister's Office, should be charged with implementing the government's policy.

Following are some suggestions for immediate action:

1. Resolve the festering dispute over land claims in the Negev

2. Establish a pre-school education network staffed by high-quality teachers in all Bedouin localities, including the "unrecognized settlements"

3. Organize teacher seminars to train Bedouin teachers and put an end to reliance on teachers imported from Arab towns in the North

4. Establish a network of vocational training for youngsters not aiming for an academic education

5. Provide scholarships for Bedouin entering colleges and universities

6. Give employment preference to Bedouin who have served in the IDF

7. Provide generous assistance for housing for Bedouin who have served in the IDF

8. Set up a panel of sociologists, anthropologists, economists, and town planners to research the process of Bedouin urbanization and lay down guidelines for the development of Bedouin towns.

In addition, the IDF should establish an intensive program of recruitment among Bedouin youngsters under the command of a senior IDF officer. During their military service, they should be given vocational or pre-academic training. Their financial compensation should be increased to reflect the fact that they are serving on a voluntary basis.

It is not yet too late.